social impact

What if college students had to create public art projects that maximized social impact?

College students in Mumbai are addressing the needs of their city through school projects. They have created and implemented, with police support, murals, political commentary, repurposing of places that are frequently peed on (you read that right), and play spaces soliciting community feedback. They also created "The White Wall Project: A whitewashed wall, stage and canopy" to inspire gatherings, performances, and film screenings."

But my absolute favorite of these college students' projects were the ones that interacted directly with young children. They created playgrounds in the slums made from reused materials (tires, bamboo scaffolding). They hosted interactive art festivals fostering creative self-expression. And they performed plays inspired by the oral history of Mumbai on top of buildings next to public squares. Who said a rooftop can't be a stage?

Through these initiatives, read: university projects, these students have begun to transform the largest city in the world. Living in India I'm all too aware of the filth and forever-accumulating garbage in the streets preventing public gatherings. One college student began stenciling an image of Gandhi which ignited into a public-cleaning campaign and now, these inspiring college students, are also cleaning the streets of their beloved city. This is the next generation of India.

This is what higher education could be. 

What if teacher-training involved public speaking and audience engagement?

What if teacher-training involved public speaking and audience engagement? 

This is one of the most powerful TED talks I've ever seen regarding our current state of education and teacher-training. For years I've been advocating for teachers to have training in how to understand, respond to, and react to their audience- their students. I think it a huge disservice to students when teachers aren't excited, engaged, and animated about content. This guy says teachers should watch rappers and preachers and take notes on how they engage their audiences. Amen.

The Sadhana Forest Tour (with me as your guide)

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THE SADHANA FOREST TOUR

My favorite part of volunteering at Sadhana Forest: giving a 2-hour tour of the community and our reforestation work, at least once per week, but often 2-3 times per week to school groups, tourists, and locals. I tell the stories that make up our history, the multitude of ways in which Sadhana Forest manages resources and conserves water, about our other projects inside India and around the world, the principles and values we live by, and our innovative, time-tested tree-planting methods. It’s exhilarating. I expend all of my energy and enthusiasm sharing with anywhere from 1-150 strangers at a time, what is so special about this place I call my home. I enjoy “reading” my audience and assuaging their potential boredom with humorous anecdotes. It’s such a great feeling to affect a huge group of people with laughter, and subtly encourage them to think about their effect on the environment and each other.

Side story: This also means that I’ve created a sort of celebrity for myself and can’t go anywhere within a 10-kilometer radius without being recognized. It’s lovely, it really is. But I know a bit what celebrities feel like now; sometimes I just want to be anonymous and drink a cup of coffee in a café while reading or drawing. Quiet time, you know? My best Kate-sighting experience occurred when I was looking for an art store in Pondicherry and I stopped into a random clothing shop to ask for directions. The man behind the counter smiled a huge smile and whipped out his phone to show me a video of ME doing the tour at Sadhana Forest! He then proceeded to walk me to the art store I was looking for. Super kind and wonderful. (And a bit scary that strangers have videos of me speaking about reforestation. Things I never dreamed of.)

What if all products had to be disassemble-able so they could have multiple lives?

What if we exposed children to the idea that resources are finite, and products become obsolete too quickly? What if we challenged children to create products from their previous counterparts? What if all products had to be disassemble-able so they could have multiple lives? Wait a minute! Children naturally do this! They takes things apart and put them back together and take them apart and make new things! This is a huge conversation that, I believe, we should be having with children. Let's inspire them to create not just from what we already have, but with the idea that what they create will not be an end in itself.

In this video they explore the idea that products should be made in a way that make them easily disassemble-able so they can go back to their manufacturer at the end of their life to be reused in new incarnations. I like the idea of companies re-hacking their own products. 

Art Break Day

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ART BREAK DAY 

Last year I attended Art Break Day and had a blast drawing with local kids and getting a feel for the larger creative Auroville community. Over the course of the year I became very close with Krupa, the event’s producer, and since this year’s event was occurring 2 days before I left India I just had to go! I spent the whole day volunteering for the event, which meant handing out supplies, making art, meeting people, seeing old friends, and yes, being a unicorn. It was one of my many perfect endings to a life-changing year of experiences.

Art Break Day happens all over the world on the same day as a kind of simultaneous burst of creative expression. School groups came, students with special needs, local families, and tourists. It was so special to see everyone being so serious and intent on their art. Many people stayed for hours, totaling about 200 people from 10am-5pm. The theme, “I am…”, encouraged an array of ideas, one of my favorites being “I am the mockingjay.” Aren’t all of us activists and social developers in some way mockingjays?

After spending a year as the director of the 3rd most visited site in Auroville and the largest residential volunteer community in India, Sadhana Forest, I have met so many people! Art Break was kind of like a stroll through the past year or a goodbye party of sorts as I felt what’s so special about Auroville and recognized how enmeshed I became in this world. It’s amazing how quickly you can make a home for yourself.

I am the world.
I am wandering.
I am now.

What if students engaged in their own community re-purposing, co-creating their environments through street art and getting to know their neighbors?


What if students engaged in their own community re-purposing, co-creating their environments through street art and getting to know their neighbors? 

I am so inspired by Candy Chang. She creates community forums in unused public spaces that bring people and ideas closer together. What if students were exposed to the following projects and challenged to engage their communities through unused public spaces? 

Here are my Candy Change favorites: 

Before I Die is probably Candy's most widespread project. It turns the side of an abandoned building into a chalkboard of wishes, dreams, and bucket lists. The project gained so much popularity that Candy designed stencil kits, in different languages, that she sends around the world, upon request, so that "Before I Die" walls can be recreated elsewhere. What a way to share with and inspire your neighbors and motivate yourself to follow your dreams! 

Neighborland is "an online/public installation tool for civic collaboration. Organizations can ask questions to their community about the places they care about. These questions are tied to real world projects so residents’ ideas and feedback will lead to change." Say what? The people have a voice? And someone wants to listen? Hell yeah! This project aims to solve local issues through community feedback. One example asked for ways to make a particular street safer. 

Community Chalkboards "provide residents with a free and accessible platform to publicize events, post jobs, ask questions, and self-organize... Inspired by a community chalkboard in Liberia by Alfred Sirleaf." What a way to repurpose the chalkboard! In small communities, particularly where not everyone has internet access, a community events chalkboard is a brilliant way to gather your neighbors and share. 

This installation consisted of a wall of post-it notes that were pre-stamped with fill-in-the-blank statements about the number of rooms in your apartment and how much you pay in rent. I love that this installation seeks information that neighbors are too shy to ask each other but really want to know. This was inspired by the Illegal Art "To Do" project, which created a mural of post-it notes in the shape of the words "TO DO" so that passersby could share their daily "to do" lists. After all, we all have them, right? 


The Local Community

The Local Community    When I think of community I always imagine the organic nature of it, like a loose web floating in air that continually gets more entangled in slow motion so that you only understand the depths of connection when you step back or see it from another angle. It dawned on me yesterday that my community in India are the local people and not so much the people in my reforestation community.   I drive through town waving to my neighbor children, swerving around cows, stopping to see my coconut guy who has the best, juiciest coconuts, having a tea in the café and hearing my name yelled from across the terrace when it is ready in a Tamil accent: “Kay-tee!”   I sit in a cafe to read my book and look up to see Shakthi, smiling his huge toothy smile, asking if he can take a few minutes of my time. Shakthi runs dance parties for the children in local special needs schools. I’ve attended the parties and they are fabulous: blaring Tamil pop-music, children dancing around the room, children sitting and watching, children singing along, children with physical needs being swept around the room in the arms of a teacher or volunteer, laughing with delight. Shakthi refuses to charge for this service and he refuses media and press. He is not doing this for recognition; he just wants to offer the children a moment that isn’t hard or frustrating. He wants to create spaces of joy. And he does. We chat for an hour or so planning a visit for his children to Sadhana Forest.   Again I am struck by the relationships and friendships I’ve developed over this year with the locals. I’ve been excited for the next chapter in my life, to move onto another community, another country, something different. It’s been eagerness and anticipation that I feel most. This week thinking about the people who live here who’ve touched me with their open hearts and stories and invitations to dinner with their families I’m overcome with sadness. This is what I’ll miss. This is what community means to me.

The Local Community 

When I think of community I always imagine the organic nature of it, like a loose web floating in air that continually gets more entangled in slow motion so that you only understand the depths of connection when you step back or see it from another angle. It dawned on me yesterday that my community in India are the local people and not so much the people in my reforestation community.

I drive through town waving to my neighbor children, swerving around cows, stopping to see my coconut guy who has the best, juiciest coconuts, having a tea in the café and hearing my name yelled from across the terrace when it is ready in a Tamil accent: “Kay-tee!”

I sit in a cafe to read my book and look up to see Shakthi, smiling his huge toothy smile, asking if he can take a few minutes of my time. Shakthi runs dance parties for the children in local special needs schools. I’ve attended the parties and they are fabulous: blaring Tamil pop-music, children dancing around the room, children sitting and watching, children singing along, children with physical needs being swept around the room in the arms of a teacher or volunteer, laughing with delight. Shakthi refuses to charge for this service and he refuses media and press. He is not doing this for recognition; he just wants to offer the children a moment that isn’t hard or frustrating. He wants to create spaces of joy. And he does. We chat for an hour or so planning a visit for his children to Sadhana Forest.

Again I am struck by the relationships and friendships I’ve developed over this year with the locals. I’ve been excited for the next chapter in my life, to move onto another community, another country, something different. It’s been eagerness and anticipation that I feel most. This week thinking about the people who live here who’ve touched me with their open hearts and stories and invitations to dinner with their families I’m overcome with sadness. This is what I’ll miss. This is what community means to me.

What if schools engaged students in addressing community needs?


What if students were coached through design projects and taught how to choose materials and use power tools to alleviate an immediate social need like housing for the homeless?  

At Project H, children have built a 2,000-square-foot farmers market structure, iconic downtown landmarks, farmstands, playgrounds, school gardens, an obstacle course, public chicken coops, a school library, and a tiny home (for the homeless that is being made now). This purpose-driven project is engaging 9-17 year-olds in social responsibility through creatively solving current issues. And the students are learning physical as well as social skills along the way. 

What if school curriculums were focused around the communities they serve? What if there were no cookie-cutter curriculums, and instead students, teachers, and administration worked together to choose areas of study based on community need. Think of the impact! Think of the teamwork, resourcefulness, and learning that could happen! Think of the relationship that would be fostered between the school and community! Think of the changing role of teacher from a provider of information to a facilitator of social change. 

What if teachers were the most prepared people to do the teaching?

As a country we spend more money per child than any of the top performing countries in the world. When I say "top performing" I am referring to countries that focus on critical thinking, creative problem solving, and persistence as the gateway to deeper learning in academic areas like reading, writing, and mathematics. In these countries, while spending less per student, teachers have class sizes that are noticeably larger than here in the States and they have considerably less outside support for student's with special needs. And the students are still outperforming ours. How is this happening with less money and less individualized support? The reason is teacher training. In Finland, which is so often talked about as a model for better education, teachers spend 6 years training!!!! Teach for America and NY Teaching Fellows churn out teachers in less than 2 years and place them in extremely difficult schools. No wonder there are crazy high teacher attrition rates! In some countries teachers get a Masters in their intended field so they can become experts, and then they go to a teacher-training school for 2 years. In order to get licensed, teachers write persuasive arguments about how they would solve hypothetical classroom problems, instead of taking 3-hour multiple choice tests about content that's often not even related to what they'll be teaching. What if instead of pouring money into students we poured it into teacher training? 

What if great, progressive graduate programs got some state funding to train more teachers?

What if a degree from a "critical-thinking school" meant a higher salary? Unfortunately, spending $1.3B on smaller class size or more professional development for teachers is not hitting the target. Teachers need to be prepared BEFORE they are in the trenches. Teaching is an incredibly difficult and time-consuming job. And it should be. As a teacher you usually have more than 20 children's lives in your hands for 180 days. And that's often more time than they are spending with their families. Being able to have that large an impact on someone's life is a huge responsibility and not something an hour of coaching once a week in a subject area is going to improve that much. Teachers need to learn how to teach critical thinking and creative problem solving. Not better reading. What leads to better reading are children who can come up with strategies on their own instead of being given them by the teacher. What's needed are way more restrictions to become a teacher, with teacher assessments that match those high expectations. If we want our students to do better we need our teachers to be better.